Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Higgs Boson Fruitcake Switcheroo

"Throughout the ages the Chinese have had only two ways of looking at foreigners. We either look up to them as gods, or look down on them as wild animals."
-Lu Xun

Nanchong is home to some 1.2 million souls and 99.98% of them are Han Chinese, which means (according to my second grade math) that there are roughly 240 minorities in all of Nanchong. Granted, some of us weren't counted in the last census, but no matter: 240 feels about right.

There are perhaps as many as twenty Westerners in town. Four of them are Mennonites and three of them are Peace Corps volunteers; five of them are evangelical Christians with beards, studying Mandarin at the Normal College; there are six or seven freelance teachers that I have never met, but whose sex lives are the stuff of legend; there is an Italian named Fiero who owns a coffee shop downtown, and then you have Ricky and Sadiq over at the Medical College. We are a small group, but not a tight one. Most days, I don't see any laowais at all. When I get home from work and glance in the mirror, I'm surprised and a bit disappointed to find that I am not Asian.

Most of the minorities in Nanchong are Uighurs. Uighurs are Chinese citizens, but they aren't really Chinese. They eat noodles instead of rice, lamb instead of pork, and they speak Mandarin instead of Sichuanese. The Uighurs have a monopoly on the local ramen racket, but their relationship with the Han Chinese population is strictly business: you buy noodles, we serve you noodles. One would think that as fellow outsiders, the Uighurs and I would share some sort of camaraderie, but whenever I swing by a Uighur noodle joint for a bowl of beef ramen, the cooks watch me eat and laugh at me. I don't really mind. I suppose when the world is staring at you, you've got to find someone else to stare at - and at the moment, I happen to lie at the very bottom of the chain of normalcy.

So even in Nanchong, you can find little pockets of diversity here and there if you know where to look for them. But 99.98% of the time, I lead a Han Chinese existence. For the past nine months, I have played by Han Chinese rules. I've learned what is polite and what isn't: loogeys are fair game, as is cutting in line, as is holding your baby over the sewer drain to take a crap - but don't even think about leaving your chopsticks standing upright in the rice bowl. I know a billion ways to modestly refuse a compliment. I can sense when I'm about to be screwed over. On a good day, I can talk a peddler down to half his original price. In short, I have adapted. But the longer I live here, the more perplexed I am by foreigners. I'm not quite sure how to act around Americans, and in the rare event that I find myself caught in a pickle with someone who isn't a local, I'm at a complete loss for what to do.

For your consideration: I was on my way to dinner the other day when I was corralled by a Uighur cake vendor.

"No thanks," I said, and kept walking. The cake man blocked my path with his cart and told me to check out his cake. I stopped and gave it a look-see. It was a mighty odd cake alright: the thing was as long as a Blimpies party sub, with dates and berries and little ears of baby corn embedded in the bread. But it wasn't exactly my cup of tea, so I said bu yao and started walking the other way. But the cake vendor grabbed hold of my sleeve and wouldn't let go. Then he whipped out a knife and started cutting the cake.

I shrugged. Why not? It was just the sort of overaggressive salesmanship I'd gotten used to in China, so I knew what to expect. I figured I'd wind up spending a bit of dough I hadn't planned on spending, but I'd probably get my money's worth.

"One liang, three bucks," said the cake man.

I nodded. "I'll take one liang, then."

He finished cutting the cake. Then he pulled out a scale and weighed the slice - and Large Hadron Collider be damned, because right there and then, before my very eyes, the cake man must have found the elusive Higgs Boson, for the cake had suddenly acquired ten times its original mass.

"One jin, thirty bucks," he said flatly.

I should've seen it coming - the oldest trick in the book, the Higgs Boson Fruitcake Switcheroo. And now the cake man had me in a bind. The masses were already gathering around to observe the transaction, and if I refused to pay, he'd simply have to cry thief! and I'd be screwed. Which is just what he did.

"I don't want the cake," I said, and turned to walk away.

"Thief, thief!" he cried. I stopped in my tracks.

"You're the thief," I said. "You're trying to cheat me."

"One liang, three bucks!" he shouted, then he pointed at the scale. "One jin, thirty bucks!"

"I never wanted that much cake in the first place. I wanted one liang. Three bucks. I told you that," I said. "Do I look like some kind of idiot?"

An ooh from the crowd: this was getting good. The people came in droves. As I pleaded my case and shook my fists at the heavens, the old ladies around me grunted and nodded their heads approvingly.

"But I've already cut the cake," the cake man said. "There it is. You asked me for one jin and I cut you one jin. Just pay for your cake and there won't be any trouble."

"I can't afford it," I said.

"You can't afford it?" said the cake man, raising an eyebrow and smirking.

"I don't have that kind of money."

"How much do you have?"

"Five bucks," I said, "and I'm only going to give you three."

"No, you're going to give me thirty. Because that's what you owe me."

"In my country," I said, "we don't buy fruitcake. Your grandma mails it to you for Christmas."

Laughter. By then, the crowd had spilled over into the street, and they were unanimously on my side. Red-faced and scowling, the cake man put down his knife and stepped up to me. We were standing face-to-face, chest-to-chest. He didn't speak. Someone in the audience shouted, "Why are you cheating our foreign friend? Just cut him a smaller slice!" I gave the crowd a thumbs-up and grinned at the cake man. He stared at me for a long time.

"This is funny, isn't it?" I said to him.

"There's nothing funny about it," he said.

I laughed. "Well, I'm not really hungry anymore. So I'm not going to buy anything. But you know I didn't want thirty bucks worth of cake," I said. I gestured toward the crowd. "They know I didn't want thirty bucks worth of cake. So I'm going to leave and you're not getting any of my money."

The crowd seemed proud of me. I thought they were going to give me a standing ovation. But they just watched me ride off into the metallic Nanchong sunset, nodding to themselves. Meanwhile, the cake man, sensing that the sidewalk across from the university was no longer a good place to do business, lit up a cigarette and rolled his cake cart on down the road.

I got some dinner - sweet and sour cabbage, a bowl of spicy pig intestines - and sat there thinking about what had just happened. I replayed the confrontation in my mind. I felt no sympathy for the cake man. He had tried to rob me blind and, all things considered, I thought I'd handled the situation pretty well. But in retrospect, it was Chinese crowd dynamics that puzzled me.

It starts with a couple of rubberneckers. Those rubberneckers attract more rubberneckers, and pretty soon you have a full-fledged mob of staring humans. A Chinese crowd can materialize in instant and disperse just as quickly. In China, crowds gather around fights, car wrecks, mahjongg games, and foreigners who have made the mistake of remaining in one place for too long. It is one of the eeriest things in the world to watch - or to be watched by - a Chinese crowd. Emotionless faces, a low murmuring, row after row of staring eyes. Should the situation turn violent, no one will break formation to intervene. Should someone get injured, no one will help. The Chinese crowd is a weird organism, indeed - a creature that does nothing but hover in one place mumbling to itself until it is dissolved by pure boredom.

Generally speaking, Chinese crowds are a harmless nuisance. They get in my way and turn me into a stammering wreck. They look me over and talk about my body hair, my clothes, the size of my nose. But this crowd had urged me on. They stood up for me. If things had escalated any further, I have no doubt that some dude in a crusty suitcoat would have stepped up and put the cake man in his place. And that was precisely what puzzled me. I have been cheated in the past by Han Chinese junk vendors, but not once did anyone raise a finger in my defense. The crowd just stood around watching my money evaporate. Only after the fact did a couple of old ladies rush over to tell me that I'd been gypped. But my showdown with the cake man was different somehow. He was an outsider and I was an outsider. In a sense, it was something of a cockfight, a roadside sideshow, a form of cheap entertainment. But this time, the crowd was emphatically on my side. They wanted me to win. They didn't want the cake man to take my money. I was a laowai, but at least I wasn't a Uighur. I suppose it all boiled down to a kind of relative racism. As a Westerner, I am an unknown variable. I am a god, or I am a wild animal. The Uighurs, on the other hand, have a definite reputation here - and it is not an altogether positive one. I empathize with them. It's tough being an outsider. Who wants to be a wild animal, after all? Or a god, for that matter?

But what do I know? I'm generalizing. Guessing. Imagining. When you're living abroad, sometimes the only way to make sense out of anything is to generalize. But then you sit in a park on a Sunday afternoon with your moleskine and your cigarettes and your half-empty bottle of beer, and you watch the people pass, hundreds upon thousands of them. They stare at you and you stare at them. Foreigner, they say. Chinese person, you think. Chinese person. Chinese person. There are so many people in the world, and who knows a damned thing about any of them?


alison said...

This happened to us too!! We bought the slice and it sat in various places around the apartment (kitchen counter, fridge, top of fridge) until we threw it away. Do the Uighurs in Nanchong speak, uh, Uighur? After we went to Urumqi we knew a few words, and they were nicer to us. Most Han Chinese that we knew didn't bother to learn any Uighur, so the Uighurs were thrilled at our awesome integration.

Love the parts about looking in the mirror and expecting to be Asian, as well as the end where you think: Chinese person. Chinese person. I wonder if I go around in my life just labeling things (or people).


Dr. Jen said...

yeah happened to me too.... the slice of fruit cake that costs WAY more than expected, the fruitcake trap